“The only journey is the one within”
Alrighty then, you know you’re a total geek when you’re unable to decide whether you’d rather write a post about Heine or Rilke. I mean, Heine and Rilke are just so exciting, aren’t they? They’re right up there with winning the lottery on the excite-o-meter. I guess I must be pretty low-maintenance or maybe just low in general.
I’ve chosen Rilke for now because I know more about him. In fact, I went through a “Rilke phase” for a couple of months in the early ‘90’s when I would read some of his poems almost every night. His words seemed to fit into what I was feeling at the time. Looking at what I’ve been reading and writing about lately, I think he’ll fit just perfectly again.
His mother wanted (and dressed him as) a girl until he was around five years old, and this is why one of his six middle names is Maria. Why didn’t he choose one of his more masculine middle names, like Josef, to be part of his moniker? I guess we’ll never know.
Rilke was an early existentialist, although if he were here speaking to me today, I’m pretty sure he’d deny it. He was often depressed, but he often embraced his depression. He was often lonely, but he often reveled in his loneliness. He was a complete, yet very flawed person. He loved art and sculpture and was Auguste Rodin’s secretary in Paris for awhile. He fought in WWI for the Austrian army. Rilke was 51 years old when he died. He had leukemia, and pricked his finger on a rose thorn which led to sepsis and death. How apropos for a poet to experience such a poetic demise, especially Rilke! In his poems, he often imbued inanmimate objects with a kind of innate, living cruelty.
Rilke was one of the lucky few poets to become at least moderately famous during his lifetime, but he was still poor. It didn’t seem to bother him too much if the next poem is any indication:
Among so many people cozy in their homes,
I am like a man who explores far-off oceans.
Days with full stomachs stand on their tables;
I see a distant land full of images.
I sense another world close to me,
Perhaps no more lived in than the moon;
They, however, never let a feeling alone,
And all the words they use are so worn.
The living things I brought back with me
Hardly peep out, compared with all they own.
In their native country they were wild;
Here they hold their breath from shame.
I think the title says it all in this poem. Rilke is aware of his individuality and separateness. Other people can’t stand to be alone; they eat together gluttonously and they emote and they babble and they live in their “cozy homes.” Rilke is above all this. Even though he is just a poor poet, the “living things” in his mind’s eye must “hold their breath from shame” for they are far superior to the superficiality and acquisitiveness of the common man. He sees beyond the trivial and reaches for the sublime.
How would Rilke feel about our current consumer-driven culture? If he were to see how we’re destroying so much that is precious due to greed and corruption, how would he react? I’m pretty sure he’d snicker and say something akin to “I told you so!”
The inscription is Rilke’s own. It says:
“Rose, oh pure contradiction, joy
of being No-one’s sleep, under so
Ironic isn’t it? Did he choose this epitaph before or after he was infected by the thorn? Maybe he had a strong pre-death premonition. Whatever the case, the words of the inscription are lovely, and they perfectly describe the multi-layered persona of Rainer Maria Rilke.